A coming-of-age tale set in the rural South on the eve of the Civil Rights movement, as well as a Southern gothic and a fairy tale, Moira Crone’s The Ice Garden tells a story at once timeless and deeply rooted in an era. Narrated by ten-year-old Claire McKenzie, the novel begins with the birth of her younger sister, “Sweetie,” whom Claire realizes she must protect from their mother. A devastating portrait of the ripple effect that mental illness can have on a family, as well as a haunting reminiscence of a vanished place, Claire’s story probes the connection between Diana McKenzie’s slow collapse and the small, stifling town—the fictionalized Fayton, North Carolina—where the novel is set. In the end, Crone suggests that the love of beauty that dooms Claire’s parents will potentially liberate Claire—and thereby redeem her mother—as Claire enters adulthood.
When we meet Diana McKenzie, she’s unfolding herself from the family car, her husband’s Mercury, five days after giving birth to Sweetie: “I was staring at my mother at that moment, not the baby. Her body and looks were things I observed the way some people relied on the clouds and the moon, to try to decide what weather was coming. She was beautiful all the time. Everybody in town said so” Aloof, emotionally distant from her husband and children, whom she has repeatedly abandoned, Diana feels as though she’s married down, and she holds herself above the other women in Fayton. A reluctant mother, she seems incapable of fulfilling the expectations imposed upon a woman in a small Southern town.
Because the McKenzies are aristocrats, no one will intervene when Diana’s behavior becomes dangerously erratic. But when she assaults Claire’s aunt, the family doctor—with the collusion of Diana’s husband—commits Diana. In flashback, Claire recalls her mother playing the piano after driving through a rainstorm to attend a lesson with her teacher, Mrs. Corrigan, a kindred spirit:
Her head hung down. She was humming, like she’d hummed in the car, but louder. Her elbows were high. She was attacking the keys. She tossed her head back and then dropped it down again so that her hair fell across her face. It fell in hanks and hid her eyes, but she did not care, did not stop to pull it back. I had never known her to do that then, at least not in front of anyone. But she wasn’t ashamed, in Mrs. Corrigan’s parlor. She wasn’t ashamed—of anything.
Throughout the novel, Claire’s feelings toward her mother vacillate not so much from love to hate as they do from fascination to dread, a charged ambivalence that the reader shares. Yet while the vision of her mother playing the piano terrifies Claire—music unleashes dangerous forces in Diana—as Claire also understands, the piano offers her mother her only hope for some kind of transcendence.
Diana McKenzie’s tragic disintegration and the strategies her children adopt to survive make for mesmerizing reading. Is art necessarily destructive? What is passion without discipline? Without looking away when things get ugly, Crone gives us a lucid, clear-eyed portrait—one that is often unflattering but never unsympathetic—of a woman who cannot bring herself to do what is expected of her, who cannot accept the terms of her life. Yet we should make no mistake about the danger Diana poses her children. “I would rather die than go back to that house,” she tells her husband, when the family flees town during a storm. Whatever sympathy we might feel for Diana, we recognize her willingness to pay for her self-actualization with her children’s lives.
One sometimes wishes for a little more historical context. After all, if Claire can reflect on these events from the future, why not comment more directly on the changes coming to this provincial culture? Yet the prose so beautifully evokes that culture, the effect is almost elegiac. By implying that Claire escapes Fayton—by implying that her love of music can liberate her from the constraints that shackled her mother—Crone suggests that things might have worked differently for Diana McKenzie in another time and place. Thus does Claire have the potential to redeem her mother’s life, despite her own misgivings about what that life might have meant, and despite the increasing distance she feels from her mother over the course of the book.
Transcending the regional yet wholly of its place, The Ice Garden reimagines the Southern gothic at the dawn of the twenty-first century, filtering the story through the outlook of a woman whose perceptions seem thoroughly of our time. Artfully blending genres, Crone aims for an allegorical realism that illuminates the present by meticulously evoking the past. Rich, rewarding, a deeply felt work of art, its unity of form, it’s nearly perfect—a gracious, necessary book.